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After Effects: Is it for You?

You've heard of After Effects and what it can do for you, but you may be hesitant to start using it. Do you need it? Is it worth it? Antony Bolante offers his advice to you.
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The day I started using a word processing program, I didn't worry much about style sheets or inserting tables. I only knew that whatever was in the computer lab would help me get my Lit paper done faster and with fewer mistakes. Other students were already taking advantage of spell checking and laser printing, and I didn't intend to miss out. Luckily for me, I didn't need style sheets or tables; I just started typing.

When I started using graphics and video editing software, I discovered that more complex needs require more complex solutions. After all, it's harder to replace your darkroom, drawing tools, or video equipment than it is to replace a typewriter. Learning more sophisticated programs introduce a technological hurdle, not to mention a financial one. They all take time to learn. They all cost money. You must pick and choose carefully.

So even though you've heard of After Effects and what it can do for you, you may be hesitant to start using it. For starters, After Effects isn't exactly cheap: The standard package costs more than the stalwart Photoshop, and the Production Bundle costs about twice that amount. But it isn't merely the expense of the program that merits your consideration - it's the investment of time and effort to learn it. Do you need After Effects? And is it worth it?

As you may already know from your existing experience in digital imaging, design or video, After Effects has distinguished itself as the leading program for 2-D animation, compositing and effects on a desktop system. No doubt, you've considered the possibility of turning your graphics into motion graphics for film, video, or the Web. Or you're involved in a dynamic media like film or video, and you require compositing or effects not available in your post-production system.

With the technology available today, moving to After Effects has never been so attractive. Just as digital tools ushered in a desktop publishing revolution years ago, new technology seems to be sparking a desktop video revolution. Increased computing power has made digital filmmaking a reality; innovations like digital cameras and the DV video format have brought high quality imaging to the masses; and the rapidly expanding bandwidth of the Web promises new presentation venues. And as the capabilities of technology expand, the costs continue to drop. So really, professional results with After Effects are within reach, and more affordable than ever.

Of course, even if you've determined that After Effects meets both your needs and your budget, what about the dreaded learning curve?

If the potential for expanding your current work is what attracted you to After Effects in the first place, you're in luck. The more experience you bring to After Effects, the better. The After Effects Visual QuickPro Guide compares working in After Effects to creating an opera. Just as an opera synthesizes aspects of disparate art forms, After Effects orchestrates various media into a new, dynamic work. In fact, After Effects accepts your Photoshop and Illustrator files, and can even import your Premiere projects directly and seamlessly. Similarly, you can apply what you already know about digital imaging, design, and video to your work in After Effects. So to a great extent, you already know more about After Effects than you think.

When you glance at the After Effects interface, however, you may be tempted to think otherwise. After Effects' Timeline window, for example, can seem alien to artists accustomed to the static media of Photoshop and Illustrator. Even those who use time-based media (video editors using Premiere or Web animators using Live Motion) may be put off by After Effects relatively austere timeline.In fact, After Effects Timeline window can appear downright scientific, with its rows of telemetry and graphs.

But don't let yourself be intimidated by a first impression. Upon closer examination, you'll find the interface reassuringly familiar. Adobe has worked hard to make the look and feel of their programs consistent, and it shows. When you're familiar with the elements common to all Adobe programs, it's easier to concentrate on the unique features of each one.

By the same token, the techniques you learn in After Effects can be applied to the other programs. Once you learn to animate an image in After Effects, for example, you can use nearly identical steps to animate an effect in Premiere, or a graphic in Live Motion. The same principles can even be applied to other animation software. In this respect, taking the time to learn After Effects becomes that much more worthwhile.

So is it worth it? Of course, it's ultimately up to you to weigh your needs against your investment. But if you decide After Effects has what you need at the price you can afford, then there's no need to be intimidated by the learning curve. Like chess, After Effects isn't so hard to learn, though it can take time to master. If you need what After Effects has to offer, go for it. Take it from me: If I had worried too much about those style sheets and tables, I'd still be using a typewriter.

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